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Legislative Update September 2009

Congress reconvened this week and most of our congressional representatives have returned to Washington from their home districts after a very hot month of dissension and dispute over the health care issues. Town Hall meetings across the nation were nothing less than boisterous as strong emotions and opinions were expressed from both sides of the debate.

TRACS Act

Rep. Melissa Bean (D-Ill) reintroduced the Taking Responsibility for Community Safety (TRACS) Act, on July 20. This bill, H.R. 3410, would require Surface Transportation Board (STB) consideration of the impacts of certain railroad transactions on local communities, and for other purposes. The bill had been introduced by Rep. Bean and Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn) last year. The TRACS Act would give the STB authority over any transaction involving at least one Class I railroad and would require the board to consider the safety and environmental effects of a proposed transaction, including effects on the public, the safety of grade crossing and the transport of hazardous materials, emergency response time, noise, and intercity passenger and commuter rail transportation. The transaction could be rejected or possibly diminished by the STB if the adverse effects on local communities outweigh the benefits to commerce and competitiveness.

When the bill was introduced in 2008, it was part of a bi-partisan coalition’s opposition to Canadian Northern’s purchase of the Elgin, Joliet & Eastern Railway Co. line. It has now been referred to the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.

Operation Lifesaver Awarded $1 Million Rail Safety Grant

The Virginia-based nonprofit Operation Lifesaver, Inc. (OLI) has received a $1,015,000 grant from the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) to continue its wide-ranging public education outreach efforts to raise awareness about the potential hazards at grade crossings and the dangers of illegal trespassing on railroad property.
Amongst other things, the grant agreement provides 75 percent matching funds toward state programs, educational programs and materials, and a three-year public service campaign entitled, “Take Safety to Heart.”

There were 2,395 grade crossing incidents in 2008, resulting in 287 deaths, as well as 453 deaths due to rail trespassing.  Deaths from both trespass and vehicle collisions have decreased somewhat due to decreased train traffic resulting from the recession as well as increased safety effort. FRA Administrator Joseph Szabo stated that, “despite decreases in the number of train-vehicle collisions, promoting railroad safety is as important as ever.”

The grant supports the goals of the U.S. Secretary of Transportation’s Action Plan for Highway Rail Grade Crossing Safety and Trespass Prevention, as well as the recently enacted Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008, which provides a roadmap to guide federal, state, local, industry, and other entities in combating the dangers associated with highway/railway crossings and pedestrians on the tracks.

Loss of a Great Friend and Advocate

We are deeply saddened at the loss of Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy, an avid supporter of organized labor, worker safety, and fair wages. Although he was born a child of privilege, Senator Kennedy spent his life helping those who were less fortunate. He was a constant fighter for social justice and a champion for those who often did not have many people advocating for them. The BLET Auxiliary honors every member’s individual political views, and I’m guessing that Senator Kennedy’s stance on particular issues may have run counter to the personal and social values of some. But there can be no argument that he was an effective advocate for all of our nation’s workforce and a leader in standing with American families and protecting individual rights. He was recognized by Democrats and Republicans alike as being one of the hardest working and most effective lawmakers in Washington, and his negotiating skills and ability to “reach across the aisle” were his hallmark for getting things done. Rest in peace, our beloved “Lion of the Senate.” We will miss you.

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